MANILA, JULY 27, 2008 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - Malacañang expressed appreciation for the cooperation offered by the Senate to address the challenges posed by high food and oil prices but emphasized that President Arroyo will bare her own plans to face these problems in her State of the Nation Address (SONA) tomorrow.

Deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez, in an interview over dzRB, said the government needs all the help it can get right now, particularly from the legislature, to address the rising prices of rice and oil.

“In these times of crisis, which is being felt not only here but the whole world, in order to get through these problems we need self-responsibility, not only within the government, within the private sector, but all sectors of society,” Golez said in Filipino.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. had earlier said that the opposition-dominated Senate is ready to cooperate with the President by coming up with the necessary legislation to address the food and fuel crises being faced by the nation.

The statement from the leadership of the Senate came at a time when the relationship between the chamber and the Executive branch is not at its best.

“The cooperation of the Senate with the Executive is a very welcome addition,” Golez said.

In offering Senate cooperation, Villar had asked the President to provide the necessary direction for Congress to address the problem.

Golez said the President will present her policy direction for the rest of the year and the following year, particularly on how to address the issues of food and fuel prices.

He said the President has already been undertaking various programs to help cushion the impact on the poor, particularly social welfare programs.

The President has allocated a total of P8 billion in excess revenues from the collection of the value added tax (VAT) on oil for social welfare programs designed to help the poor cope with rising prices.

“This is what the government is focusing on now in order to ease the burden on the people during these times,” Golez said.

No legitimacy issue

Golez also noted that the legitimacy of the President is no longer an issue since the Supreme Court has already ruled on the matter.

“We have no idea why they are saying this, especially their challenge on the legitimacy of our President, because we all know that even the Supreme Court has ruled that the mandate of the President is legitimate,” Golez said in Filipino.

He was apparently referring to the ruling of the Supreme Court against the electoral protest of Senator Loren Legarda against Vice President Noli de Castro, which Malacañang claims has a direct impact on the earlier protest filed by the late Fernando Poe Jr. against Mrs. Arroyo.

“The Supreme Court ruled that no evidence of ballot switching was ever found in any of the contested ballots. That is why the Supreme Court ruled that President Arroyo is the legitimate president of our country. Any ruling of the Supreme Court forms a law of the land,” Golez said.

Verifiable accomplishments

As part of the preparations for the President’s SONA at the Batasang Pambansa complex tomorrow, a special Cabinet meeting was held yesterday at Malacañang.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said the members of the legislature attended the meeting and presented their report on the implementation of the President’s 10-point agenda.

He said this was part of the regular oversight function of the legislature and that the inputs from the legislature would form part of the President’s SONA.

Dureza emphasized that the accomplishments to be presented by the President are all verifiable, in response to the allegations by critics that the SONA would be filled with lies.

As indicated by the other members of the Cabinet, Dureza said the focus of the SONA would be on the social programs of the administration, including the provision of direct subsidies to the poor using the proceeds of the VAT on oil.

To VAT or not to VAT

Meanwhile, newly-appointed National Economic and Development Authority director general Ralph Recto also acknowledged the need for the Executive branch to listen to the ideas of the legislature, including the proposals on amending the revised expanded value added tax law in order to change the structure of the VAT on oil.

Various proposals have been presented on how to address the rising cost of oil and some of these involve the removal of the VAT on oil.

This proposal has been rejected on numerous occasions by Malacañang because of the impact it will have on the overall revenues of the government.

Another proposal was to impose a specific tax on oil instead of VAT, which the proponents claim would have an impact on pump prices while keeping the revenues of the government intact.

Recto, who was one of the principal authors of the RVAT law in the Senate, said the proposal to impose the specific tax on oil is worth studying just to weigh the pros and cons.

He said the VAT collection system is now very efficient as far as the tax code is concerned but “if the people want to amend this and come up with something better then why not.”

Recto said that one of the policy directions that should be taken by the government now is to move towards self-sufficiency because of the rising prices of rice and oil in the world market.

All ready to rumble

For her part, Remedios Belleza, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)-SONA coordinator, says she remains confident that they would be able to complete, or at the least make a substantial completion, of the President’s priority projects come June 2010.

Belleza said all the 18 SONA projects, which are under the Medium Term Development Plan, that have been identified by President Arroyo in 2004, would be locally funded.

It would cost the government a total of roughly P48 billion. It would take two to three years to complete a structure.

The SONA projects are expected to be finished when Mrs. Arroyo’s term ends on June 30, 2010.

“We are confident that we would complete the projects because we implemented the multi-year obligational authority wherein we are assured that the funding for the construction of these SONA projects would be uninterrupted, ” Belleza said.

The projects were classified into four, according to their geography, with specific thrusts. Infrastructure projects in the North Luzon Quadrangle would boost the agricultural trade in the area while those selected for the Luzon Urban Beltway is intended to spur economic growth.

Projects within Central Philippines is to attract more tourism, and those chosen in Mindanao, apart from expediting the delivery of agricultural products, also hopes to bring peace and order to the island.

She said infrastructure development remains a priority of the Arroyo administration. “As of now we still need infrastructure in the country because they serve as links in the transport of goods and services, provide access to markets, alleviate poverty in the countryside and enhance peace and order in conflict-affected regions.”

By improving the roadways, the DPWH official said they are not only decongesting the traffic in the metropolis, but they are also lessening the wear and tear of the vehicles passing through.

With these ongoing developments, Belleza said, the arrival of investors would not be far behind.

All systems go

In terms of security, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Avelino Razon Jr. yesterday said they have not monitored any immediate or direct threat that would disrupt the SONA.

Earlier, the military commander of Metro Manila warned that the NPA has deployed its liquidation squad to Metro Manila ahead of the SONA.

National Capital Region Command (NCRCOM) commander Brig. Gen. Arsenio Arugay said NPA Sparrows are plotting to conduct liquidations against key targets before or even after the SONA.

“It’s all systems go,” Razon said, adding that in line with the PNP’s SONA security preparations, additional police units from Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon have been called in and will be on standby at Camp Crame.

Expecting a worst-case scenario that might develop during the anti-government protest tomorrow, all police personnel who will be deployed for anti-riot duties were required to attend a human rights briefing at Camp Crame’s parade grounds yesterday.

“This is to ensure that our men on the ground are equipped with enough skills and technique in dealing with unruly crowds without violating their personal rights and their rights to peaceful assembly,” one of the police anti-riot commanders said.

Starting today, the PNP will also raise its alert status from heightened alert to full alert (red alert) in Metro Manila.

Checkpoints and chokepoints in strategic areas, like entry and exit points in Metro Manila, will also be put up, PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome said.

Some 5,650 policemen will be deployed for anti-riot duties tomorrow while the NCRCOM has committed 600 of its military personnel also for civil disturbance duties.

On top of this, the NCRCOM is assembling a 3,000-strong standby force at Camp Aguinaldo, ready to respond to any eventuality. – With Evelyn Macairan, Jaime Laude and Nestor Etolle

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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